With a little courage, a lot of leg-power and some encouragement from an exuberant Italian guide, Greg Dickinson discovers some of Europe's best mountain biking in the Dolomites, Italy.
“Do you suffer from vertigo?” Paolo is straight faced, but it’s hard to take him seriously in his patchwork yellow and pink sunhat. I tell him I’m alright with heights, and can’t resist asking why. He hops on his mountain bike and pedals ahead, leaving it a few seconds before calling back “It’s a surprise!"
I met up with mountain expert Paolo in Cortina d’Ampezzo, a couple of hours north of Venice by coach. During the winter months skiers and snowboarders descend on this glamorous resort town – put on the map as the setting of Roger Moore’s epic Bond ski chase in For Your Eyes Only (or for hosting the 1956 Winter Olympics, depending on who you’re talking to). For the rest of the year it’s an increasingly popular base for mountain and road biking in the UNESCO-protected Dolomites, with a number of “bike hotels” in town offering storage, maintenance and massage therapy for cyclists.
My two-day adventure started with some news: many of the area’s cable cars and chairlifts – used by cyclists over the summer – had closed a week earlier than scheduled after an uncharacteristically rainy season in the region. Paolo revealed this with a good-humoured shrug, his concentration fixed on a map as he figured out a revised route. It was an overcast morning, but occasionally the clouds parted to unveil a splintering mountaintop, hundreds of metres higher than expected, and I wondered what on earth I’d got myself into.
On my bike, the early, knee-straining hours along forest roads are tough, but as we gain altitude I find Paolo’s carefree attitude to be as uplifting as the regular espresso breaks we take. And I’m not the only one enamoured by the man. Just about every driver that passes us honks their horn and yells “Ciao, Paolino!”, he’s on backslapping terms with the owners of all of the mountain rifugios (mountain refuges), and even receives a clean high five from one passing jogger.
I soon reap the benefits of his popularity myself when a moustachioed gent named Fausto beckons us off our bikes and into his falconry headquarters. We’ve caught him between his 11am and 3pm displays, and I’m thankful to rest my legs for twenty minutes as we sit and watch him fling birds of prey into the deep pine valley behind him.
We’re soon back on the road, and after ascending over a thousand metres the mountain biking finally begins. For the first single track run I’m sat down, with all four fingers clutching the brakes as I dodge football-sized boulders and very nearly hurtle over the handlebars when I forget that the front and back brakes are on the opposite sides here.
Paolo clocks my abysmal technique and gives me a crash course on how to avoid doing just that: stand, arms outstretched when going downhill; pedals level; only one finger on the brakes; manoeuvre the saddle with thighs for extra control; and, most importantly of all, stop being such a wimp.
The results are immediate. I can’t possibly descend at the speed of Paolo, who lets out a high-pitched “WOOP!” as he flies down the path with zero regard for his own mortality, but I quickly build confidence and speed, and find the experience to be far closer to skiing over moguls than riding a bike.
After a couple of muscle-rattling hours the light begins to draw in and we call it a day, hopping on a chairlift up to Rifugio Scoiattoli. The kitchen here cooks up a divine three-course meal, including the local specialty casunziei ampezzani (beetroot ravioli with butter, parmesan and poppy seeds). Exhausted, I knock back a few home-brewed grappas before retreating to my dorm, still wondering what Paolo’s promised vertigo surprise will involve.
I wake up at 5am, restless with the disorientation that comes from sleeping at altitude, and stumble outside the refuge to find a dozen people wrapped in scarves and woolly hats, tripods at the ready. Behind the nearby Cinque Torri – a series of finger-like dolomia towers – the sun emerges, spray-painting a warm pink onto the peaks that loom above us, and exposing a blanket of cloud hundreds of metres below. Marmots, ubiquitous to the Dolomites, shriek from their unseen caves as they awaken while I head inside to get my cycling kit on.
Without the burden of gaining height, I’m treated to a series of fast downhill trails and some more “off-piste” experiences. Paolo’s knowledge of these mountains is indisputable, but there’s plenty of improvisation involved in his guidance; he leads us across knolly fields, over fast-flowing streams and down squelching mud tracks. At one point we meet an almighty ravine, caused by a landslide thirty years ago, and carry our 13-kilogram bikes on our shoulders as we scramble down and up onto the other side.
After a few hours of more conventional riding we prop up our bikes and walk towards the edge of a cliff, where I see a thin pathway wrapping around to the left – no wider than a metre at points. With just a wire rope to protect walkers from a 100m plummet, I realise this must be the vertiginous challenge I’ve been waiting for.
We start along the path, Paolo far cooler than me as he casually runs a finger along the rope that I’m gripping with two white fists (he later tells me that you’re not technically supposed to walk this path without a carabiner and safety harness). A steady rumble emerges from around the corner and I grin as I know what’s coming. The rope becomes slippery and a cloud of water bursts into my face.
We shimmy behind the glorious hidden waterfall that Paolo had kept a surprise, the water droplets enveloping my overheated body. And as I look out through the cascade, my view impeded like a half-tuned television, I tell myself that it’s two days of high-octane mountain biking, not vertigo, that’s causing my legs to tremble.
Bike rental from Due e Due Cortina costs from €26 per day for adults and €12 for kids. Dorm bed and half board at Rifugio Scoiattoli costs from €55 per night in half board. The Cortina Bike Pass grants access to ski lifts with your bike, costing from €60 for a 3-day pass. Single journeys can also be purchased at the lift stations.
Top image © dolomite-summits/Shutterstock